The Craft of Writing Musical Theatre – PART 1

Keyboard_ComputerThe development of new Musicals in Australia is in its infancy.  This is an indisputable fact, however egregious when compared against the lineage of development opportunities in America.  With real longitudinal commitment to this perennially diverse and popular theatrical Art form, the two main live and broadcast rights collection agencies (BMI and ASCAP respectively) in the USA have seen the tangible and significant benefits of their investment in supporting writers of ‘Broadway’ Musicals.

Why are we so behind in Australia then? In one respect, the finger needs to be pointed at our equivalent rights collection organisation, APRA.  It continues to bewilder me that APRA does not have a musical theatre division.  Whereas APRA will, of course, collect overseas royalty payments for writer members on overseas productions, it still does not ostensibly represent musical theatre writers in their own right.  If someone can enlighten me on this, I’d appreciate knowing?  God knows, I’ve never had much success in promulgating the idea that we, theatre writers, do exist in this marvellous country of ours!

It’s good to see that in the last call for submissions for development funding from the new-kid-on-the-block, New Musicals Australia, that over 50 works were submitted for consideration.  The more veteran organisation, Magnormos, has been independently, and without divested Australia Council funding, been promoting and developing new Australian Musicals since 2000.  So now, albeit tenuously, we have the Australian equivalent of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, and the ASCAP Foundation Musical Theatre Workshops.  Except that we don’t.

The development of new Musicals requires first and foremostly, the assistance of ‘theatre composers’.  One of the major, if not seminal, reason that the ASCAP workshops are so successful; having garnered such acclaim for their developmental prowess, is that they are directed by Stephen Schwartz.  The constituted panels for reading presentations is very carefully considered and the feedback is tightly focused.  In Australia, we are a long way from having the level of expertise required for such constructive assistance to our writers, because we have never supported the development of writers in any capacity comparable to the development of Directors, Actors and Designers.  It won’t come as a surprise then to learn that there is not an educational forum available anywhere in Australia for theatre composers to go to develop what is a highly arcane and specialised field of composition.  In my view, the same goes for Opera composition, although this will be more contentious to some people reading this post.

One development model that should be investigated more closely in Australia is the constituency model developed by the American Lyric Theater (New York).  ALT’s signature program is the Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP), a curriculum that includes classroom training and hands-on workshops with some of the USA’s leading working artists.  Alumni of the CLDP program; through supporting funding from the Carnegie Mellon Foundation (Australia Council, please take note), are commissioned to create full-scale works.  ALT absorb the commissioning and developmental expenses, undertake legal clearances, organise table and workshop readings, and then promote the work to potential producers.  Brilliant!

The operatic equivalent to ALT’s ethos is American Opera Projects.  Through a number of different programs designed to support new works in all phases of their development, composer/librettist teams are selected for up to year-long fellowships to work with singers on writing for the voice and contemporary opera stage.  The fellows are also mentored by an artistic team of directors and designers.  The Artistic Director of AOP is conductor, Steven Osgood (and, by the way, he is very good).

So, who is going to step up and take responsibility for training Australian Musical Theatre Writers?  I don’t know the answer (although some people think I should).  I do not see any educational training institution in this country having the foresight, interest, skill-base, or endeavour of will to address this unfortunate oversight.

Perhaps a country like, let’s nominate Singapore as an example, might develop the idea?


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